English 10 Curriculum Makeover Gets Students’ Attention
IPA English teacher Angie Gibbs decided that teaching “dead white guys” lessons was a dead-end for her English 10 students. This revelation occurred to her while attending a National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference in 2013, hitting home during a session on engaging teenage readers through curriculum with which they could truly identify.
“Too many kids were failing because they weren’t engaged by the material,” she recalls of her first several years teaching English 10 at Irvington Prep, a semester of which was based on holocaust literature. “They were reading Night (by Elie Wiesel) and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (by John Boyne). Not that they aren’t good pieces of literature, but the kids just weren’t responding well to them.” So post-NCTE conference, Ms. Gibbs created curriculum focused on one of the most compelling subjects for teenagers: identity. She piloted this change during the 2013-2014 school year and refined it for the current year’s offering.
Students read the young adult novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, about the rape of a freshman and the challenges she faced and overcame. They also read the semiautobiographical novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a story of personal and tribal identity. It concerns a high school junior from a Native American reservation who moves to an all-white farm town and attends a high school with an Indian mascot. Says Ms. Gibbs, “Both characters are really struggling with finding their place in life and fitting in, which teenagers struggle with every day.”
Last semester’s culminating project involved students writing an essay about the symbolism of the tree in Speak and creating a supporting work of art. They then presented their personal “identity tree” to the class. As a result of this sea change in curriculum, the change in her English 10 grades from two years ago to now has been “exponential,” she says. “Never in my 15 years of teaching have my students participated at this level of engagement.” She notes that remarkably, none of the trees students created featured race or ethnicity as an identity theme.
Exemplifying how powerful the students’ exploration of identity has been, a boy with significant medical challenges colored his tree’s lower leaves a dismal brown to reflect his early medical history. Then he portrayed his experiences as a teenager in both brown and a more pleasant green, and the tree’s multicolored crown represented his hope for the future.
Second semester English 10 now segues to the subject of “tolerance.” Says Ms. Gibbs, “Now that we know who we are, we are going to talk about other people’s identities and where they are coming from.” Ultimately, the goal is for students to learn how they can be more tolerant of people’s differences. Students will choose from a list of 25-30 nonfiction books, including memoirs, such as The Pregnancy Project, the tale of a teenage girl whose six older siblings were all teenage parents and who decided to fake being pregnant to experience people’s perceptions of her in that simulated state. Such reading corresponds to changes in the Indiana Academic Standards and aligns with preparation for the English 10 End of Course Assessment.
Yet Ms. Gibbs believes that high school English classes can be more than just meeting educational standards and going through the motions of assigned reading and writing, especially in gauging comprehension. “Not every student is going to be able to demonstrate that he/she comprehended a lesson by answering questions in a study guide,” she attests. “They can regurgitate. But the question is, did they truly learn.”